Deborah A. Thomas
Professor of Anthropology and Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Much has been written about the effects of extreme violence – and particularly state violence – on individuals and communities throughout the world. Attention has tended to focus on the forms of marginalization and exclusion generated by and through violence, on the “bare life” and “exceptionality” that has been theorized by a range of European political philosophers. My interest in this presentation is to think sovereignty, in both its conventional registers, outside the state by highlighting instead its everyday practice. Drawing from narratives generated through two collaborative projects geared toward visually archiving state violence in Jamaica – the Coral Gardens “Incident” in Western Jamaica in 1963, and the May 2010 state of emergency in West Kingston – I will show that thinking about what sovereignty feels like means being committed and attuned to the non-monumental, unspectacular world of the everyday and the dynamic structuring categories through which it is lived. On one hand, these narratives show us something about the conditions of violence that both define the parameters of legitimate citizenship and lay the foundation for the periodic eruptions of exceptional violence. On the other hand, they provide a sense of the extent to which people are able to imagine, or imagine themselves enacting, alternative political futures. It is this latter dimension that gives us a sense of the affective dimensions of sovereignty. Exploring what sovereignty feels like, therefore, illuminates not only the ways alternative projects circulate in and through social communities even if the material movements that produce them “fail,” but also the entanglements across time and space that both produce and attempt to destroy them.